How do you see your databases? Do you see the inputs and outputs of a day’s transactions, or focus on the fine-tuning you do to make sure that everything runs smoothly? Do you visualise the end result of that data, the applications, websites, reporting – the end user activities that are the net result of your and others’ labours? Most likely your view shifts as the context of your work shifts. There are very few of us who can effectively hold the big picture in our heads while effectively managing the details of day-to-day work.
For years, opensecrets.org have been gathering information on political funding, making this available on their website and aiming to get the information into the news. Their data has been open since 2009, but a new browser plugin uses it in such an ingenious way that it almost seems that it should have been the point of the project all along.
Greenhouse takes their data and fires it into your browser wherever the various politicians involved are mentioned. There are two key things this does – it means that the data is far more discoverable – if you’re interested, it comes to you passively as you read the news. It also presents it in context – something the raw data provided by Open Secrets can’t really hope to do. It also faster than blog posts and press releases, and guarantees getting it in front of people who are already engaged. It doesn’t replace the original site goal of gathering and cataloguing campaign funding data, but it means that journalists and amateur political wonks – the target audience for the original site - can install the browser and get the data piped straight to them, bypassing press releases, blog posts, handling media, etc. It’s such an obvious win for OpenSecrets that it seems amazing that they didn’t do it themselves.
Sometimes that fresh pair of eyes is what’s needed. We get bogged down in the complexity of actually doing what we have to do day in, day out, that the new, the brilliant, the better – these things can become invisible. And it’s not really anyone’s fault – when you’re busy, taking that step back can be almost impossible to justify. Still, it’s hard to improve the way things work when you can’t see the bigger picture.